Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah

Cover of "Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, ...

Cover of Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, Book 2)

I suppose I should sum up right at the beginning.  Both Frank Herbert and I should have left well-enough alone: he in the writing, and me in the reading.  I had been told that none of Dune‘s sequels was cut from anything resembling the same quality of cloth, and Dune Messiah proved the point.

Famously, Miles Davis asked John Coltrane why he soloed for so long.  Coltrane responded that he didn’t know how to stop.  Miles then said, “take the horn out of your mouth.”  I side in that discussion with Coltrane, but Miles, had he been speaking with Frank Herbert, would have been right on point.  Put down the pen.  If nothing else, Dune Messiah is a cautionary tale about the dangers of continued writing after a story is over.

A few points about Dune itself.  It straddled a lot of lines politically, and this allowed some appeal.  Paul Atreides, led the Fremen, an occupied, indigenous underclass on its own planet, Arrakis, to not only power but to conquest of other planets.  Written in the 1960’s, Dune benefited from the broader historical context of the anti-imperialist struggle.  One sympathized with the Fremen, who were the good guys.  Herbert, as I noted in my first piece, focused on Paul–we might call him “Lawrence of Arrakis”–for reasons I wasn’t entirely sure of.  Was it a plot device or did Herbert see natives as historically passive?  We find out in Dune Messiah that, indeed, natives are historically passive.  No surprise here, but certainly disappointment.

The bulk of the struggle in the book, if not necessarily the plot, is Paul’s regret over his role in history.  He unleashed a Fremen jihad, leading to the deaths of billions, and can do nothing to stop it.  Poor boy gets all weepy half the time in his imperial helplessness.  We now get Herbert’s take on liberation movements: aren’t they all just bloody messes in the end?  This is how liberals justify the maintenance of a bloody, but normalized, status quo.  Oh, but if we changed things, people might get hurt.  I don’t suggest that bloodshed should be taken lightly, but this line of thought is precisely the kind of thing that Gramsci was dealing with when he looked at liberals’ role in capitalist hegemony.

Much is made, largely through the character of Alia, Paul’s sister, of the cultishness of the Fremen.  Paul detests what he takes to be their naive superstition.  One can take this position if one wants, and we can agree or disagree–I myself  have had enough experience in meditation to no longer doubt the possibility of basically any religious sentiment or experience.  The problem here is that Paul detests this superstition, or religiosity, while getting filthy rich off it.  Paul, seen through the lens of his personal morality and its revulsion at bloodshed, is sympathetic.  Seen through the lens of his class position, he is, at best, an ass.

I have been told not to bother with the other books in the series.  An AA buddy told me that, in fact, they get progressively more inane.  I accept his advice.  Let it be known though, that Herbert did, in fact, write one great novel.  That’s an achievement.

Frank Herbert, Dune

For a few years, now, I’ve been wanting to reread Frank Herbert’s Dune.  I read it on my father’s recommendation as a kid, liked it, but was curious to return to it and see what Herbert’s subtext was.  I imagined it could go a lot of different ways: the spice could represent oil, etc., in the desert, yada yada.  Also, I had an interest in rereading the Sci-fi book–this one should indeed be called, using Octavia Butler‘s preferred term, “speculative fiction“–that people said rivaled The Lord of the Rings‘ detail without, I hoped the Tory politics.  I’ll note that the following will include no quotes: having paid 50 cents for my copy at the library’s book sale, I gave my copy to someone at the local Alano Club.  I had stopped in for a cup of coffee and to finish the book, she came up and started talking to me about it and expressed an interest, so I finished it and gave it to her.  She said that she was starting to be able to read complex material in her recovery, and I thought that was very  cool.

I expected on the one hand to enjoy the book immensely, and I did.  As a yarn, it’s top-notch, though I felt like the last quarter of the book actually moved more quickly than I wanted.  Likely, this is a good sign.  That said, it sped it its end, I thought.

More of an issue to me was my worry that reading Dune would be something like watching Lawrence of Arabia: well-done, but hopelessly orientalist.


Lawrence raises Arabs above their racial lot equals Paul raises Fremen above their racial lot.  This was my fear, and I hope it’s not an original point to point out that my fear was somewhat confirmed, though much less offensively so than might have been.  That is to say, the Fremen, though initially faceless, mysterious presences in the wild, certainly got good, deep characterizations in the book and Herbert’s exploration of Fremen culture denoted an author who had actually studied desert peoples as peoples with culture.  That’s a big deal in a white American author, and he must get credit for that.

The Lawrence of Arabia problem is to some extent conditioned by the plot, and once one has a good plot to go with it seems like it would be a bad idea to ditch it.  The Atreides family is given the desert planet Arrakis as a fief.  The Harkonnen family screws them out of it and kills the Atreides Duke, Leto.  His wife, Jessica, and son, Paul, flee to safety among the Fremen, assumed dead.  Paul takes on the role of messiah and leads the Fremen to take over the planet.

In this yarn, the Fremen themselves–the indigenous people–are functionally, as in, there would be no other way with this plot, props.  They allow the real action, that between the foreign rulers, to proceed.  Clearly, I’d argue that this ought to be reversed: I’d like to read the book in which the Atreides and Harkonnens serve as plot devices so the Fremen can reclaim their ancestral land fully.

I thought this through a bit, trying to find a way out for Herbert.  There is a real issue when abject oppression is involved, and when big institutions like, in the novel, an empire and intergalactic economy are the agents of oppression.  This is more or less analagous to the struggle indigenous people have faced vis-a-vis international capital over the last 500 years or so.  Survival as a people is the one act of resistance people can choose, and in choosing it people have not always been successful.

I remember a comment in the eighth volume of the UNESCO History of Africa in which the author, noting the political and economic difficulties most African states have experienced in independence, pointed out that the colonists indeed forced themselved on the colonized culturally through education.  The colonists taught culture, history, literature, philosophy and the like.  Africa, in independence, has produced world-class culture, he argued.  What the colonists emphatically did not teach the colonized was administration and technical expertise: i.e., how to run things.  That they consciously omitted from the curriculum.  This applies here, in Dune.  If the Fremen literally had no access to the type of knowledge they would need to run things, someone else would need to give it to them.  This would be, in the direct context of the plot, Paul Atreides.

It’s not enough, though.  After having this line of thought, I remembered The Black Jacobins.  I assume Herbert hadn’t read it.  Rather than a Lawrence of Arabia, why not a Toussaint L’Ouverture?  That is indeed historical precedent–because sci-fi needs to be believable.  Indeed, some of the elements that might have allowed this are in the book, particularly the little-referenced urban Fremen.  Those people, in close contact with the foreigners, would have access, were it written into the story, to the type of technical knowledge referenced above.  So, too, did Toussaint have white collaborators.  The figure of Kynes, the planetary ecologist, could have as easily gone native–the book uses the term–and followed a Fremen, Stilgar most likely, rather than, as the book has it, led.

Nonetheless, I’m reading Dune Messiah now.  Without question this is good stuff, and my critique is a reflection of how engaged I was with the book.